Dreaming of America Beyond Capitalism?
Gar Alperovitz. America beyond Capitalism.
According to its publisher’s publicity release, America Beyond Capitalism “offers hope for the future.” The evidence offered for this hopeful scenario is two-fold: first, that a vast array of diverse micro-level economic alternatives, consistently ignored by the mass media, is developing throughout every region of this beleaguered land; and second, that these neighborhood-, community- and state-based alternatives are heading us towards a “radical restructuring," a new homegrown all-american macro-system―beyond capitalism, beyond socialism, neither liberal, conservative, red, or blue―which Alperowitz calls a Pluralist Commonwealth (PC). The priorities of this emerging PC vision are straightforwardly progressive; they include:
• Developing institutions that hold wealth and make investments on behalf of the public, e.g., on the model of state-wide pension funds;
• Maximizing opportunities, especially for those now excluded, to gain control over their own wealth, and that of the enterprises in which they work, e.g., through worker owned cooperatives, democratic ESOPs, and community-based economic enterprises;
• Decentralizing “continental-scale” government by transferring political power to regions, states, and municipalities;
• Increasing opportunities for democratic participation through increasing economic security and subsidizing free time for all; e.g., by cutting back the work week, while keeping income constant.
The author is at his best when he either describes the emerging panoply of micro-level economic alternatives, from worker-owned firms to state-run pension funds to municipally-owned utilities to community development corporations (Chapters 8-10), or provides a clarifying philosophical account of the basic ideals of his macro-system (Chapter 6 and Conclusion). But he leaves this reader, at least, with a strong sense of disconnect between these two levels of analysis and practice.
The disconnect arises from several distinct sources. On one hand, the micro-level activity has been around, in one form or another, since the 1970s, and it hasn’t yet dented the entrenched continental, centralized, capitalist system one iota. Indeed, as our micro-alternatives have grown by bits and pieces, with gains and losses, the other side has grown exponentially, indeed, monstrously―colossally. So why should we believe that by doing more of what we have been doing we will get anywhere close to the PC, in say, twenty or fifty years? Alperovitz tends to respond to this sort of objection by taking the “long view”: in the “long arc of the 21st century,” he tells us, what we are doing will be seen as having laid the necessary groundwork for radical restructuring. But this remains speculation, and in any case, as John Maynard Keynes famously said, “In the long run, we are all dead.”
Secondly, many of the “alternatives”―take it from someone who has worked within a bunch of them― are hardly allies of the PC. Community development corporations are frequently run as fiefdoms, state pension funds often are hardly more transparent or accessible to genuine democratic control than WalMart or Enron, ESOPs are notorious for offering diluted ownership without worker control or even job security. What’s small or local is not always, and not for that reason alone, beautiful. Worst yet, many (most?) of the alternatives ABC reports on depend on corporate capitalism; after all, that’s where they primarily purchase the bulk of their supplies, or invest the public’s money.
Third, most of these scattered micro-initiatives have rarely if ever worked together, formed coalitions, developed common strategies. It strikes me as unlikely that the PC vision itself will overcome this condition of organizational isolation and egoism. But if not, what will bring these “alternative” groups out of their own private shadows and into a united force for progressive change? The book is silent here.
Finally, for our purposes, the problem of upscaling micro-initiatives to more-than-local levels and, in particular, to the federal level, is not well addressed. For example, Alperovitz recommends establishing a “major new” federal institution, a “Public Trust,” to “oversee the investment of stock on behalf of the public.” The obvious question is why he imagines that this Trust can be trusted? What will keep it accountable, much less responsive, to the actual public’s will? There may be answers to these questions, but ABC does not offer any. We can understand how a neighborhood credit union or community loan fund remains under the control of its local constituency, but a national Public Trust is quite another―and much more difficult―entity to keep under citizen control. This problem is compounded by the book’s avoidance of the need to challenge the current political-penal-military system; but if this is left intact, can we really expect to arrive at a democratic alternative beyond corporate capitalism?
All in all, then, I don’t find ABC convincing. I wish I did, but what it offers seems more like a bare possibility than real hope. While its macro-level vision is appealingly progressive, and certainly moves far beyond the capitalist bottom line, we are told too little about how it would actually and concretely function, and its realization is set too distant in the uncertain future for it to become a mainspring of organizing commitment. Moreover, no evidence is provided that the emerging buds of practice that it draws on―to me, somewhat unselectively―are capable of developing the collective strength to threaten corporate capitalism. Indeed, in many cases, they seem to neither prefigure nor promote anything like the PC macro-vision.
The book is well worth reading, in part to become more fully aware of the range of economic arrangements coming to life outside of (but not, as of yet anyhow, in opposition to) corporate America. Further research may reveal that some of Alperovitz’ micro-level seeds can grow into (part of) what is needed for us to have a shot at coming out of the shallows. And, after all, his book does pose some key questions: Is there a system-wide, oppositional, and realistic alternative to capitalism? If so, what is already available that we can build on to get (closer and closer to) there? Still, there are crucial questions it ignores. For example:
• How can micro-alternatives with revolutionary or system-changing potential be distinguished from those compatible with corporate capitalism and American empire?
• Can we create a radically new system, or displace the old barbaric one, simply by adding more and more economic alternatives, or do we need, in addition, a new political vision and strategy?
I don’t have any fail-safe answers to these questions, but I think they are inescapable, if we want to do more than dream of getting “beyond capitalism.” Here are some preliminary ideas, which I hope will provoke further discussion:
As far as assessing our own alternatives, there seem to me at least two criteria: first, can they coalition or collaborate with, learn from, trade with, support the growth of other micro-alternatives; and second, are they or can they become “oppositional,” in the sense of retaking resources (e.g., human, physical, or financial capital) now controlled by the American empire-corporate capitalist system?
As for the second question, it relates directly to the first: for one can ask, “But around what should micro-alternatives coalition?” The answer, my friends―scratch that, I mean one potentially fertile answer, with some existing working models―is blowing in the Brazilian winds, where in recent years a genuinely novel democratic innovation has been created: the participatory budget. Imagine if every progressive public interest or civil society group were to form an oppositional coalition to demand citizen control over the allocation of their taxes (“No taxation without citizen allocation!”)? Such a coalition could bring together workplace democracy, indy media, peacemaking, restorative justice, earth first, renewable energy, affordable housing, living wage, feminist, pro-immigrant, and anti-racist groups. At every level―local, state, federal―control over public funds (direct control, that is) would be shared between elected officials and this diverse family of citizen groups. It’s worked well in Porto Alegre and hundreds of small villages, large cities and even some regional areas in Brazil, and has spread now to over a dozen other countries. Why not here? Why not now?
Len Krimerman is a member of the GEO Collective, a long-time cooperative writer and activist, and co-editor with Frank Lindenfeld of When Workers Decide: Workplace Democracy Takes Root in North America.
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